In mid-2022, we witnessed multiple unprecedented ecological crises taking place in different parts of the world. These range from the heatwave in Europe, drought in China, and more recently the severe floods in Pakistan which devastated around one-third of the country. Despite their significant magnitude, we need to remember that these crises are only some among many longstanding global environmental issues which have featured in our Anthropocene epoch that threatens the future of humanity. Against such a backdrop, I argue that if we are to foster an Umma-centric imaginary, we cannot avoid the imperative to take these global environmental issues into consideration. This essay aims to enrich existing writings about the environment by proposing that we ummatise and desecularise global environmental discourses and issues.
To Ummatise: Locating the Muslim Presence in Global Environmental Issues
To “ummatise” entails the necessity to make explicit and characterise global environmental issues as an ummatic concern. This means to oppose any ways of thinking that see these issues as only relevant for certain individuals or are confined to certain regions. Such reductive, individualised, and localised thinking is problematic as it is based on 1) a false understanding of the Umma as a Muslim community bounded to a certain spatial region/s (as expounded here and here), and 2) the failure to see the extent to which global environmental issues actually operate. For example, the Maldives, whose population is virtually one hundred percent Muslim, is at risk of drowning thanks to the rising sea level. However, no one would say the root causes of this environmental problem are only bounded to its territory. We should take into account the carbon emitted by larger and more developed countries. The climate system does not need to recognise man-made state borders to operate. Indeed, such an imposed limitation poses a threat to solving the climate crisis.
Once we accept the fact that we should see this problem as a collective and transnational, we can finally see the extent that global environmental issues have pervaded the life of the Umma. It seems that there has been no specific statistic that can give us an accurate number of Muslims suffering from environmental issues; however, we can estimate it from other available data. For instance, we can name all of the Muslim countries and list their environmental problems. We can also take into account the number of poor Muslim households across the world since these socio-economically disadvantaged households are the most prone to ecological crises. It is not to ignore the fact that environmental issues will definitely hit everyone regardless of their socio-economic background, but such differences will lead to different extents of impact and different ways of coping.
Beyond that, we should also be able to locate multiple presences of Muslims in processes that allow environmental crises to manifest. Take a case of how the American military industry emitted 1.2 billion of carbon through the “War on Terror” between 2001 and 2017. These wars caused immense suffering for Muslims in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. We can also take an example of how the fashion industry has contributed to environmental destruction while also underpaying its workers in countries like Bangladesh. In other words, environmental degradation was done by oppressing Muslims.
However, an ummatic environmental vision should be just. We should recognise that Muslims are not always victims, but some Muslims might be contributors to these crises. From Indonesia to Saudi, governments race to launch “green” megaprojects that have been heavily criticised for their improbability to accommodate ecological concerns. Not only the government, but Muslim individuals may also contribute, though to a much lesser extent, to sustaining environmental crises, for example, through consumerist lifestyles. Here, again, we need to assess these different forms of agency in a just way. While admitting the problematic characteristics, we cannot blame both producers and consumers equally—we should not repeat neoliberal tactics to render social crises as merely responsibilities of individuals while ignoring the magnitude of structural issues. An ummatic imaginary addresses both structural and individual problems accordingly. It criticises the socio-political systems that become vehicles of those environmental injustices, such as neoliberal capitalism. Additionally, we should note that an ummatic environmental imaginary should not limit its solidarity only to Muslims, since environmental issues hit everyone regardless of their religious beliefs.
To recapitulate, global environmental issues are ummatic in the multiple locations of Muslims with respect to them. However, the attempts to ummatise global environmental issues are much broader than that and we need to put great efforts to do so. Moreover, an ummatic environmental imaginary should be able to think holistically, thinking beyond the borders, and not lose to myopic, apolitical, sectarian, or reductive understandings of global environmental issues.
To Desecularise: Placing Nature in its Islamic Understanding
Desecularisation addresses global environmental issues on a philosophical level, especially in the context of a westernised world. Before proceeding, we need to first understand: what is secularisation? Al-Attas (1978:18), citing Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, explains that secularisation consists of three interrelated elements: the disenchantment of nature, the desacralization of politics, and the deconsecration of values. However, given the limited space of this essay, I will focus on the “disenchantment of nature” as the entry point of discussion. “Disenchantment of nature” refers to efforts to dismantle religious accents from the understanding of nature which will allow humans to exploit nature according to their desire. Therefore, for an ummatic environmental imaginary, we need to establish a desecularised understanding of nature which is in accordance with the Islamic worldview.
What does nature mean for Muslims? Al-Attas (1995:133), referring to Surah Fussilat verse 53, eloquently described the “world of nature” as a symbol (ayah) analogous to the Holy Quran which finally refers to the existence of God rather than pointing to itself. To illustrate this statement, imagine a road sign, “London.” We will intuitively understand that the road sign refers to something bigger than itself, which is London, and the sign itself is not London. Given the divine purpose of nature, therefore, derogating our understanding of nature is blasphemous (22). This conceptualisation of nature hence gives a solid theological foundation for Muslims to face global environmental issues. Muslims knowing the true meaning of nature would be concerned with global environmental issues beyond construing it in secular or neoliberal terms as mere resources for production and consumption, since they will see nature as the way to connect with God. We protect nature not only because it benefits the life of the Umma, but also the afterlife of the Umma.
Furthermore, this specific form of a desecularised understanding of nature, accompanied by the wholeness of the tawhidi Islamic worldview challenges contemporary environmental solutions proposed by secular knowledge. It challenges, for example, the Neomalthusian argument that believes that we need to control the number of populations living in this world. This view has been criticised for ignoring the political nature of environmental issues which rely on the inequality of consumption between developed and developing countries. While acknowledging the truth of the critique, we can advance it by questioning the underlying materialistic and deterministic logic which has seeded unjust pessimism among people. We can recognise structural issues and the necessity to address them while also holding an Islamic understanding of sustenance (rizq).
On the other hand, Islamic understandings of nature also challenge proposals offered by another extreme of secular knowledge affiliated with critical and radical scholarship. These scholars have recognised that the modern understanding of nature is problematic, tainted with anthropocentrism and other western biases that have contributed to the destruction of the environment. However, rather than assigning nature to God, they advance their project of understanding nature by further denaturalising it. It oscillates from one extreme to another extreme, from extreme idealism (i.e., construing nature as merely a “construct”) to extreme materialism (e.g., conflating the ontological status between human and non-human beings). An easy example of this case is extreme veganism, which fails to acknowledge how the human being is indeed exceptional compared to animals due to their ability to reason. However, accepting this Islamic human exceptionalism for Muslims cannot be conflated with anthropocentrism because, in Islam, a human does not hold supremacy as it is a God-centred worldview.
In this short essay, I have shed light on how the notions of “ummatisation” and “desecularisation” may work as potential strategies to raise awareness about global environmental issues while also fostering these into an ummatic awareness. The elaboration here is not at all exhaustive, but invites anybody concerned with environmental issues to further explore the possibility to strive for a better future that is Umma-centric. Furthermore, given that the meaning of nature according to the Islamic worldview is central and relatively not disputed in the tradition, environmental issues may become an avenue, among many ummatic issues, from which we can harness an ummatic consciousness.
Al-Attas, S.M.N. (1978) Islam and Secularism. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization.
Al-Attas, S.M.N. (1995) Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam. Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization.